Last year was the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most admired composers in the history of Western music. But beyond his compositions and classical music repertoire was a complicated man. There are many interesting, sometimes humorous tales attributed to him that are not very well known, so we decided to ferret them out for you to get to know him better.
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Born in December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven would go on to become one of the most influential composers, writing dozens of symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets and concertos. At aged 26, he began to progressively lose his hearing and by his 50s, he was completely deaf.
Apparently, Beethoven would carry a notebook around and have people write down their questions so that he could have conversations with them. According to English biographer John Suchet’s book, Beethoven: A Man Revealed, one of the questions was penned by Beethoven’s nephew Karl, who wrote: “You knew Mozart, where did you see him?” and in another conversation, years later, was the question, “Was Mozart a good pianoforte player?”. Unfortunately, since Beethoven would answer verbally, his opinions and responses were never recorded in the notebook.
The talented musician was not easy to socialize with. According to a Washington Post article from November 2020, Beethoven was a notorious slob whose personality, attire and hygiene left a lot to be desired. He was often seen waving his arms, shouting, or muttering to himself when composing in his head. Once, he got lost in the suburbs of Vienna, Austria, and began peeking into people’s windows to try to orient himself. He was arrested by the police and a local musician had to be brought in to identify him.
Despite his appearance, you would have had to be seriously brave or foolish to challenge Beethoven to a musical duel. A man called Daniel Steibelt did just that. The Prussian was considered to be one of Europe’s most renowned piano virtuosos and when he arrived in Vienna in 1800, the city’s musical patrons encouraged him to compete against Beethoven in an improvisation contest in order to further his reputation as a musician.
Improvisation contests were popular among Vienna’s aristocracy and involved two pianists competing with each other by setting the other a tune to improvise on. An audience of noblemen would egg them on as the musical game of tag would increase in intensity, until a winner was declared. As the challenger, Steibelt went first. He placed a sheet with his music on the side of the piano and played, conjuring up a storm on the piano to great effect, so much so that the audience could practically hear thunder in the bass. When he finished, he received much applause and appreciation from the listeners, and then, it was Beethoven’s turn.
Beethoven walked up to the piano, picked up Steibelt’s piece of music and turned it upside down! He sat at the piano, played the four notes in the opening bar of his opponent’s music… and then began to make a mockery out of it. He varied the music, embellished it, improvised, imitated Steibelt’s storm and outplayed him, to the point that Steibelt, utterly humiliated, dashed out of the room. He swore to never set foot in Vienna again as long as Beethoven was there.
Since Beethoven lived in Vienna for the rest of his life, Steibelt never returned. And no piano virtuoso challenged Beethoven to an improvisation contest again.
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